July 11, 2017

Leaders need to be misunderstood. (part 1)

Have you ever been misunderstood? Have you ever wondered, “why can't they just get it?” It doesn't matter if it's the team you're leading or the team you're a part of, if you're trying to lead sideways or lead up, or you're leading the team you're charged with and are responsible for developing. But you’re trying to help people understand your vision and they're not getting it.

I look back at my 20s, and my worst mistakes were because of hyped decisions. I didn't slow down, pay attention, see where I was sabotaging myself - or I wasn't being heard, so rather than increase the clarity of my message, I just increased the intensity. Sometimes there was yelling. Sometimes there were tears. It was messy, but you know what it feels like to be misunderstood. You want people to get it. See, as leaders, we never just experience things. We always see a better way.

Leaders see a better way.

This is in the simple stuff, like getting out of the shower. When I get out of the shower, there's this mat that I step out on to; it soaks up water and I dry off there. Beautiful system. My wife, however, thinks when get out of the shower, dripping wet, you put a towel around you and then walk wherever. She leaves some wet footprints on the rug in the bathroom and she leaves some wet footprints on the carpet in the master bedroom, and then I come walking through and step in the puddles of water in my socks, and now my socks are wet. This is a very troubling issue.

See, as leaders, we don't just experience things, we go through them and we see a better way. I remember as I started to study speaking 20 years ago, I would have moments where I would be so moved by a speaker and think, "I want to do that." As I started to study it, it does take a little bit of the magic out. I have to see somebody perform at a very high level to really be caught up in the performance. Once you start to study and break things down, you see behind them because you're always wanting to pick it apart. You look at things, everything you go through, and you think, "This is how this could be better." When I worked at Chick-fil-A and I learned how the nuggets were made, they weren’t magical anymore. I knew how it happened.

As leaders, we're always experiencing things and we see how it can be better and we try to share that with others, and sometimes we're misunderstood. We want people to get it, and they're not, and this is frustrating. We want to move unhindered in this new direction, to dry off when you get out of the shower and not get water on the carpet.

Obviously, that example is minor. But big, life-changing things have to happen. Big vision has to happen. We want to move at a pace that is exciting to us, where we feel unhindered and we're able to run. How do we do it?

There's a thought that a lot of us have. I can move unhindered in the vision. I can blaze the trail if I can just get everyone taken care of and happy. If I lead perfectly, everyone will be good and they'll understand and be able to run with me into this new vision.

I remember thinking that when I was about 23. I was helping navigate organizational change, and we were leading a turnaround effort. I was leading with a new vision, and not everybody got it. Some people were upset and angry, even expressing that to me in violent ways. It was crazy. I remember thinking, "If I could just lead everyone perfectly, then everything would be okay. If I could just lead that well…"

Then I started to think about it. Who are some amazing leaders that have done amazing things in the history of this planet? Martin Luther King is one. He had a vision, and some people understood it. He wanted everybody to get it, but not everybody did, so he was a threat to some and his life was ended. I think of Gandhi. I think of Jesus. I think of Nelson Mandela. I think of people that led with a blazing clear vision and moved the marker of what it means to be a good human forward, but not everyone understood.

You'll only go as far as the lengths to which you're willing to be misunderstood.

See, here's the reality. You'll only go as far in your leadership to impact and influence others as you are willing to be misunderstood. You need to be aware of where you're misunderstood so you can still be relatable. It's smart to be conscious of what in your message and what you do might be off-putting or challenging to others. I know there are things about me that are just weird - some of the intentionality with which I live, my zero-drop shoes that I obsess over, the fact that I don't want to use aluminum for my deodorant, whatever it is. I know there are some things that I do that are weird, so I'm going to relax, people, and joke and be relatable, but I'm not going to give up the courage of being misunderstood.

Here's the skill that we want to learn to develop if we're going to be pace-setting leaders, we've got to understand it's okay to be misunderstood. In fact, I would say it this way. When everybody around you fully sees what you see as a visionary leader, you're no longer ahead, and it's your job to start looking ahead to get a long-term vision. And if you're going to have that long-term vision, as soon as everybody is seeing what you're seeing, you're out in front again with the next piece of the vision.

It doesn't mean that you, in an insecure way, put that in front of them, saying things like, "I see what you don't see." You're not reminding them of this. You're not beating them over the head with this. You're not trying to make this the hill that you die on. You're not just the leader. Healthy leaders will actually let others on the team stir up their vision and expand what they see, but there is something mysterious, I'll even say mystical, that when you are at the helm and it's on your shoulders. It just means that you'll see further than other people, and as soon as they start to feel like they may catch up to you, there's already something else that you're seeing that's next.

Stay with the vision even if you have to change strategies and tactics.

This isn't about changing the direction every few months. I'm not talking about an insecure leader who constantly is changing tactics and strategies and doesn't know how to sit with something and get the data and make smart decisions. I'm talking about the best visionary leaders that I've ever worked for. As soon as I start to fully see what they see, they then stretch my vision another distance out in front of the ground that we had just taken. If you're going to see beyond what others are seeing, you're going to be misunderstood, at least for a moment. Your job as a leader is to bring them along with you.

We're all wired differently. My wife can see a room from a decorating standpoint in a way that I never can, and she'll transform it. Likewise, just through real estate stuff and looking at houses, we can go into a place and I can see an old kitchen and how it can be transformed into something beautiful. That's not her gifting. Until I give her pictures and explain it, she's not with me. As a leader, we're understanding that it takes courage. It's a skill to sharpen our vision. As we take this courage, we're going to be misunderstood, at least for a moment.

Here's the thing. If we're visionaries and we're actually trying to move something forward, we're going to take some arrows. There are some people that aren't going to understand, but with the people we lead, when there's a misunderstanding, we're going to take the blame, and we're going to credit the wins. We're going to own that they don't understand it, and we're going to take the time to explain it, to catch them up to our vision without shaming them and making them feel like they are behind. We're just going to patiently tell stories, sharing results of our vision, showing the credibility of it through the small wins.

On our team with SightShift, I constantly share the wins with them - not because they need to be inspired, but because I want them to constantly be surrounded by the vision. I want them to feel it. When I mess up, they're not going to follow wholeheartedly if I'm not willing to say, "I was wrong. I lied. I failed. I don't know the answer to that question. It's a great question. Help me." Whatever it is that's happening, I want to be in that place that I say, "Yes, you can understand that I am not a perfect leader. I may see something you don't see, but it doesn't mean I do everything else awesome, and I need you to help me with this." This is healthy leadership. This is secure leadership.

Some of you who are reading this need to know that it's normal for you to go through a phase where your vision loses its sharpness. Maybe you worked for a leader long enough or have been in an environment long enough or you've tolerated something long enough that your vision has gotten sloppy at the edges. It's lost its laser-sharp quality. What I want you to do is stir up that emotion so that you can understand where you need to get out in front again with the vision.

If it was easy there'd be no need for leaders. 

The other day, I was driving by a Wendy's restaurant and a sign said that they were interviewing for certain positions. I was having one of those days where I felt like everything I put energy into did not do what I thought it would. Driving past that sign, I thought, "I want to just go into Wendy's and do that interview and see if I can nail it because it'll feel so good to win one." That interview wasn't going to stretch me. I wanted to do it just because it would be easy.

The vision that's stirring within you for what the next year of your life - or the next 3 months or the next 40 years - looks like, for the thing that you're facing resistance on doing today, it's going to be something that makes you feel like they don’t get it. That's normal. That's how you know you're actually taking the next courageous step - because if you don't have vision, it's like not having water. As a leader, you become dehydrated.

It's funny to me to watch my kids. They run in the house on a weekend. Every few minutes, it seems like somebody's coming in and needs water. I'm asking, "What the heck is going on?" Were we all this dehydrated as kids? They’ve got to have a bottle of water with them everywhere. They're coming in and getting water all the time.

Vision, it's like water. You've got to have it. You've got to see with hope what's out in front of you, and even if you can only see the next step, that's okay. When he was at GE, Jack Welch talked about how there were just some days when he would be done casting vision and think, "I can't share this vision again. I'm about to puke. I've said it so many times to so many people." That's how you know it's starting to get heard.

(iTunes podcast link here for more about being misunderstood as a leader)